The Cool School, a film about the Ferus Gallery and the origins of the Los Angeles art scene in the 1950s, directed by Morgan Neville with narration by Jeff Bridges, is a misnomer, for all the figures in this movie, baking in the sun for 365 days a year, are decidedly hot.
Ed Kienholz, bare-chested in grainy home movies, dominates the film as artist and scene maker, presiding over the scandalous exhibition of his Back Seat Dodge, a rotting amusement on autoeroticism, shown at the Santa Monica Museum in 1965. Crafty Kienholz asked museum management to pay him half of each museum admission, and the museoexecs, thinking that no one would show up, agreed. The exhibition was a sensation and 100,000 tickets were sold, so Ed cashed in!
Kienholz puts the dilemma of L.A. esthetics best in the film, saying, "Better to take a head and paint it, than to paint a head on canvas." Those that left painting come out best in The Cool School -- Larry Bell, Ken Price and Robert Irwin, who wears a New York Yankees cap throughout his interviews here as if to mock the whole Los Angeles conceit. Otherwise, the film turns into a nostalgic bitch session, with Ed Moses, Billy Al Bengston and Dennis Hopper arguing about who blackballed Richard Diebenkorn for being a figurative painter back in 1959, or complaining about Ferus co-owner Irving Blum giving Larry Bell $20,000 to fabricate his boxes when the rest of them got nothing.
Ferus founder Walter Hopps fesses up to being a speed addict in archival footage. Once he was so high that he disappeared for two weeks. His wife Shirley found him in their attic! Shirley Hopps Blum, who left Walter for Irving, is the rare intelligent presence in The Cool School, still statuesque, a kind of Left Coast Nico. Her wry asides deflate the white boys: "The scene was full of drugs"; "The women basically serviced the men"; "You can only stand Walter Hopps for 10 or 12 years."
By merely exhibiting his cans and clouds at Ferus, Andy Warhol made the entire L.A. scene appear superfluous. Peter Plagens sheepishly admits, in the film, that the best thing ever to happen to Los Angeles art was Irving Blum importing Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein to Ferus, "because it put us on an equal footing with New York."
The result, however, was Blum (and Artforum, a champion of the Angelenos from their L.A. headquarters) moving east, Ferus closing, Hopps off to the Pasadena Museum and, ultimately, Texas. John Baldessari acerbically sums up the fall, "When I started at CalArts, I banned the artists from Ferus, because there are plenty of other ways to make art."
So why see The Cool School, now on view through Apr. 10, 2008, at Cinema Village on 12th Street and Fifth Avenue? Well, there is rare footage of Marcel Duchamp being interviewed in French during his famous Pasadena show. He looks like Fredric March, and he would have won a few Oscars if he had gone to Hollywood.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).